Catholics Say Bishop Has Taken Dallas Diocese Past Scandal to a Better Place

By Sam Hodges
Dallas Morning News
October 24, 2010

Bishop Kevin Farrell knows how to work a crowd, including the second-grade class at Santa Clara of Assisi Catholic Academy in west Oak Cliff.

Farrell joined in the morning spelling lesson Wednesday but took a dive, misspelling word after word as the children corrected him with escalating glee.

"I better get out of here because I'm getting embarrassed," he said, an exit line that drew another laugh and kept him on a tight schedule.

Farrell, leader of the Diocese of Dallas since 2007, often has a light, self-deprecating touch as he moves among the faithful. But many say he's making a strong mark both in the diocese, with its estimated 1.2 million Catholics, and in the broader Roman Catholic Church.

While trying to rally a big, needy diocese hard hit by past clergy sex abuse and grappling with the ramifications of a rapidly growing immigrant population, he has shaken up the diocesan bureaucracy, presided over an upturn in giving, boosted the number of local priests-in-training, and persuaded the Vatican to give Dallas two auxiliary bishops. He's spoken out on abortion and immigration and become a rare blogging bishop, posting regularly to the diocese website on matters of faith.

Meanwhile, he's picked up high-profile committee assignments with the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops, fueling speculation about his future.

"Dallas might not be his last stop," said John L. Allen Jr., national correspondent for the National Catholic Reporter.

Among those worrying about that is Ed Schaffler, president of The Catholic Foundation in Dallas.

"He's really done a good job of moving the diocese in a positive direction," Schaffler said. "My only concern is that he may not stay here long enough."

Diocese of Dallas

Farrell, 63, arrived cheerfully admitting that about all he knew of North Texas came from passing through Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

But the Ireland native had strong connections and qualifications, having studied for the priesthood in Rome and served in Mexico and Washington, D.C. There he worked his way to auxiliary bishop and day-to-day administrator of the powerful Archdiocese of Washington.

In Dallas, he succeeded retiring Bishop Charles Grahmann, whose 17-year tenure saw the diocese grow rapidly through Hispanic immigration and Catholics moving in from other states.

Dallas also was where clergy sex abuse was acute, with especially egregious revelations of pedophile priests shifted from parish to parish. Though much of the abuse occurred before Grahmann's leadership, he struggled to cope with the reckoning, which included multimillion-dollar payouts to victims.

Farrell immediately began a personal cheerleading and unity campaign that continues. He makes four to five appearances a week at Catholic schools, fundraisers and confirmation services (he presided at 59 last year), not to mention celebrating regular and holiday Masses.

The bishop has quietly settled cases of past clergy abuse and tried to move the diocese beyond the scandal. Some say it's telling that collections in parishes are up despite the recession.

"There's a new spirit," said Sister Mary Anne Owens, executive director of Catholic Charities of Dallas, who reports strong support for her agency. Farrell assesses more cautiously.

"I think that people are beginning to feel, you know, that healing has taken place," he said.

Recruiting priests

In his first months, Farrell shook up the diocese bureaucracy and added positions aimed at strengthening communications, financial oversight, and support for priests.

Farrell also made "faith formation" instruction of Catholic laity a priority. He has championed and snared high-profile speakers for the annual University of Dallas Ministry Conference. This weekend that event brought some 6,000 Catholics to the Dallas Convention Center.

Farrell also has stressed vocations to the priesthood, requiring prayers for them at Sunday Masses, and instituting and attending dinners for prospective seminarians. In his time, enrollment at Holy Trinity Seminary in Irving has more than doubled.

For Farrell, finding priests is a necessity. The national priest shortage is severe in Dallas, with a handful of parishes having no pastor, and retired priests covering at many Masses.

The priest shortage has shadowed what Farrell calls the "high point" of his Dallas tenure Pope Benedict XVI's appointment last spring of the Rev. Douglas Deshotel and the Rev. Mark Seitz as auxiliary or assistant bishops here.

But because of the priest shortage, Deshotel and Seitz are both filling in as parish pastors.

Farrell's pleasures and pains as a Sunbelt bishop include trying to find meeting space for growing crowds at predominantly Hispanic parishes. Garland's Good Shepherd Catholic Church has 11 weekend Masses, some standing-room only.

Farrell said he has helped where he can in providing funds for low-income parish construction, and he plans a capital campaign once the recession eases.

His Spanish is 'excellent'

When it comes to his public role, Farrell is notable for having a blog, which carries brief entries under such headlines as "The True Value of a Catholic Education," "Immigration Reform Is a Moral Issue," and "Priests Are Made Not Born."

"It's one way to get the message out," he said.

Farrell has been outspoken on behalf of immigrants' rights and joined in a May rally for immigration reform. He and Bishop Kevin Vann of Fort Worth issued a letter just before the 2008 election, emphasizing the church's strict teaching against abortion.

While there was some criticism, others in Farrell's flock applaud his stands.

Karen Garnett, executive director of the Catholic Pro-Life Committee, credits Farrell's cheerleading presence at her rallies with doubling their attendance.

"We're thrilled," she said.

Former Farmers Branch council candidate Elizabeth Villafranca had hoped one of Dallas' auxiliary bishops would be Hispanic but said Farrell "has absolutely been a friend to the immigrant community."

She added: "He speaks excellent Spanish."

Farrell watchers from afar include the Rev. Thomas Reese, of Georgetown University's Woodstock Theological Center. He said Farrell is in line with other Catholic bishops on issues but stands out in his understanding of finance and administration.

Farrell chairs the bishops' collections committee, serves on its budget and finance committee, and last year gave the keynote address at a gathering of diocesan fiscal managers.

He's on other panels and was named U.S. representative to the International Eucharistic Congress, set for his Irish homeland in 2012.

Farrell said most committee work is done by e-mail and noted that as collections committee chair he turned down trips to Haiti and Chile to investigate relief needs, asking other bishops to go.

"My first obligation is to the Diocese of Dallas," he said. "I like to stay at home and work."

But Farrell's rising profile, connections in Washington (the seat of U.S. Catholicism) and Rome (where his older brother, Brian, is a bishop), and relatively young age cause church observers to ponder the possibilities.

"I would not be surprised to see him made an archbishop," Reese said.

If the Vatican made Dallas an archdiocese he could be Archbishop Farrell here.

Texas already has two archdioceses Galveston-Houston, and San Antonio so Reese thinks Dallas is a long shot.

Farrell, smiling, declined to comment on the prospects, or on whether making Dallas an archdiocese is something for which he would lobby.

But he insisted he hopes and believes the Vatican will let him stay.

"The challenges here are quite substantial," he said. "And, you know, I love this place. I enjoy it every day."


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